It was a two-minute video on YouTube that got Red Bull’s attention. Filmed at Mount Buller and uploaded in October 2008, the clip showed huge snowballs stacked on top of each other, like snowmen, onto which images of a spinning earth and a blinking eye and abstract patterns were projected.
Six months after the video went online, an American Red Bull rep who’d seen the clip contacted Melbourne-based ENESS, the art and design group responsible for the film and those dramatic projections.
“They didn’t even know there was snow in Victoria,” ENESS co-founder Nimrod Weis says. “And they asked, Can you do something like that for us, for some of the best snowboarders in the world?”
Naturally ENESS accepted the offer, transforming what had been a beloved side project into a full-time job. After ENESS did their thing for Red Bull at a California snow resort, offers streamed in from clients as far away as Finland.
The name ENESS is part acronym, part amalgam of the sound of the initials of its founders’ first names: Nimrod (surname Weis) and Steven (surname Mieszelewicz). The pair has been friends since they were nine years old, and formed ENESS in the late 1990s. “We were young and naive and we wanted to use technology in more creative ways,” said Weis, a graphic designer by trade.
Mieszelewicz was a programmer, and the duo began to explore ways of fusing technology with art and design at a time when “People were trying to work out what the Internet meant,” Weis says.
ENESS now has nine employees whose job it is to transform ordinary public spaces into interactive art installations, both here and around the world. Red Bull has recently enlisted ENESS yet again, and this time the project was local. The task: to design a light installation for Australian indie-dance band RÜFÜS, who were touring in 2014 after the roaring success of their debut album Atlas.
In August 2013, RÜFÜS visited ENESS at their Windsor studio for a brainstorming session. They discussed the band’s latest album; talked about the story RÜFÜS wanted to tell on stage; ENESS asked practical questions about how big and how bright the band wanted the stage setting to be and they identified a list of constraints.
Firstly, the installation had to be scalable, able to fit on an array of different-sized stages, and look good on all of them. Secondly, the installation had to be easy to erect and break down. With almost daily venue relocations, a daylong assembly period was not an option. Thirdly, the apparatus had to be robust enough to withstand potentially heedless roadies. And finally, “this really cool, bright, big thing had to be transported on a commercial flight as luggage,” Weis explained. “It had to be something the guys could take on a Virgin flight to Brisbane.” Ultimately, ENESS designed a structure that could be broken down into about 80 separate pieces.
In the early stages of the project, ENESS decided an LED light display would trump projections as the best option for lighting the RÜFÜS stage. While projections can be disrupted or their impact dampened by other light sources, LEDs are potent and bright, making them an ideal candidate for a music show with other light sources, like spotlights.
RÜFÜS agreed and ENESS went to the drawing board, whipping up 3D renders of potential set designs. One proposal involved building giant U-shaped lights reminiscent of the RÜFÜS “Ü” that flashed so intensely that “when you closed your eyes, you had an imprint of the RÜFÜS “Ü” in your head,” Weis says.
But there was one idea that immediately seduced the band. It was a structure that had the appearance of a minimalist, striped neon cave, comprising seven horizontal rows of LED lights, which partially wrapped around the band.
RÜFÜS was enchanted by “The movement we could create through that shape, almost like a wave behind the band, or these kind of arms that were in some way hugging them,” Weis says.
ENESS spent roughly four months developing and building the lighting system: soldering the LEDs together; fabricating the aluminium poles on which the 9000 lights were fixed; programming each individual light pixel. LEDs are not only expensive, their operation can be incredibly labor-intensive, especially for ENESS, which developed its own hardware and custom controller to run the installation.
“The complexity of this particular piece was all the wiring and electrical engineering in setting up the lights,” Weis says. “People take for granted what’s behind controlling a single point of light, and don’t realise how much technology and expertise goes into turning that light on and off. Each one of those pixels has a certain amount of information that needs to be programmed in.”
Early on in the design process RÜFÜS told ENESS it wanted its show to have a sense of journey and escape, and the colour spectrum of the LEDs is a reflection of that. The palette changes as the concert progresses, moving from scenes of green, to black and white, to a hypercoloured rainbow landscape.
But the installation really hinges on an interaction between the band’s live music performance and the LEDs; the LEDs illuminate in real time in direct response to the notes hit on the RÜFÜS synthesiser.
“The benefit of the real-time aspect is that every night the visuals are slightly different,” Weis says, making each show a distinct optical experience.
“And it should be a ‘show’ – something that’s both a sonic experience and also a visual one,” he added. “Lighting and color and form and movement; they are so much a part of our sensations.”